The Problem With Popular Feminism That’s Making Many People Shy Away From The Word

By Vaagisha Das:

Deepika Padukone grabbed headlines when she affirmed that it was ‘her choice’ to do or not to do things that were traditionally expected of women in the ’empowering’ Vogue ad earlier this year. Touted as the next best thing, the ad seemingly celebrated- and reinforced- women’s freedom to take whatever path they wanted to in life, and not be ashamed of it. However, this ad, adopted by people throughout the country for its revolutionary new idea of feminism, is little more than window dressing on the actual idea that feminism encapsulates. The ideas perpetuated by conventionally beautiful, thin women in the video seem to belong to a particular brand of ‘pop culture’ feminism, which has led to people adopting the phrase with little or no concern to what it actually means. After all, watching a 10-second video is so much more interesting than taking the time to know the subject, and who wouldn’t prefer a glamorous ad to reading long lists of references?


The very same thing has essentially led them to claim that they are not feminists as well – without understanding the true nature of the word. Due to various factors, including but not limited to the hypocrisy of the media, people have now developed pre-conceived notions of the word, and ever since, words like ‘feminazi’ and ‘man hater’ has become synonymous with feminism – a Tinder user added the word ‘feminist’ to her profile, and the ensuing responses prove people’s ignorance- people are becoming wary of identifying themselves as such. Many call themselves humanists instead –like Madonna, claiming that rather than stand for one section of the community, they’d want the entire society to progress – little understanding that the word ‘feminist’ does incorporate all the sections of society, not just women: if you want to achieve gender equality, starting with the oppressed section seems to be the best course of action, and no one has yet claimed that men need female protection.

One needs to distinguish between popular feminism and academic feminism, and to address the issue of why people seem more inclined to believe things based on the former rather than the latter. In an interview with some contemporary feminist scholars in India, I came across three such people who explain why feminism is necessary, and why people are so cautious when using the term.

Why Is Talking About Feminism Still Necessary?

In 1895, the Oxford dictionary defined feminism as “advocacy of the rights of women (based on the theory of equality of the sexes).” In the year 2015, much of the definition still applies, with its idea of rights and equality of women remaining the same, yet the context has somewhat changed. The definition has acquired certain negative connotations- either due to the media or the infamous MRAs- Men’s Rights Activists, or even by those women themselves who claim that they would rather be ‘humanists’ instead, and have no more use for feminism – and the academic definition of the word is now in danger of being buried under stacks of bad press.

Sandra Bartky, a gender studies professor at University of Illinois, says that, “Although most feminists would probably agree that there is some sense of ‘rights’ on which achieving equal rights for women is a necessary condition for feminism to succeed, most would also argue that this would not be sufficient. This is because women’s oppression under male domination rarely if ever consists solely in depriving women of political and legal ‘rights’, but also extends into the structure of our society and the content of our culture, and permeates our consciousness.”

Post-feminism, a movement popular in the west, seeks to impress upon women that feminism is unnecessary in a society where women are now free to do as they wish – since there are legally no barriers to education, jobs, and financial independence, women are now free make their own choices. But if we look closely, the notion of the glass ceiling, the fact that less than five percent of women are top company CEOs, or looking closer home, campaigns based on the fact that rural toilets are necessary to ‘keep women inside and safe’ tell us otherwise.

Arpita Ghosh, an Assistant Professor of English who is currently teaching at Sidhu Kanhu University, West Bengal, her area of interest being Gender and Sexuality studies, states that, “although [politically, economically and legally] some goals that the feminist movements aspired to have been achieved, newer, more complex intersections have arrived. The postcolonial experience, the black woman’s experiences, the working class woman’s lived realities, the lesbian, bisexual, transgender women’s rights, the Dalit woman….so now what we have is a disavowal of a monolithic, Eurocentric, white, heterosexual, predominantly middle and upper class feminism.” She explains her understanding of the term feminist as “someone who would be willing to understand the multiple structures of patriarchal oppression and would be open to the idea that historically feminists to have colluded in these systems of oppression by erasing black or lesbian or working class or Dalit subjectivities. Being feminist is also recognition of the ways patriarchy oppresses males through compulsory masculinity.”

How Popular Feminism Is Making An Increasing Number Of People Shy Away From The Word ‘Feminist’

Although the term “feminism” in English is rooted in the mobilization for woman suffrage in Europe and the US during the late 19th and early 20th century, efforts to obtain justice for women did not begin or end with this period of activism. It has now become common to refer to the feminist movement in the US as occurring in waves. The struggle to achieve basic political rights during the period from the mid-19th century counts as “First Wave” feminism. Feminism waned between the two world wars, to be “revived” in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as “Second Wave” feminism. In this second wave, feminists pushed beyond the early quest for political rights to fight for greater equality across the board, e.g., in education, the workplace, and at home. More recent transformations of feminism have resulted in a “Third Wave”– which has, at times, been criticized for its lack of intersectionality.

Academic feminism is two pronged- it talks about normative as well as descriptive views of women. Normative views would include looking at how women ought to be viewed in the framework of justice and legal rights, while descriptive view talks about the realities of women’s situation.

However, talking about such issues such as gendered classism, rape, and gendered violence often translates to ‘constant complaining by women’ in a society which people still believe is equal. Such movements make for decidedly unpalatable and overall non attractive press stories, and when the notions of power and patriarchy are challenged by some, it makes them unpopular with those who believe in maintaining the status quo. An example would be the campaign started by the MRAs“don’t be that girl”, or their recent spate of tweets calling themselves ‘meninsts’ – both parodies of women’s rights movements. An illustration of the fact that Professor Niladri R. Chatterjee, Associate Professor at University of Kalyani, points out: “patriarchy has run down feminism by putting out the notion that it is a bunch of humourless, always angry, men-deprived therefore men-hating women. Not very attractive. Not sexy.”

Lack of information, coupled with factors such as bad press and media propagated notoriety are just some of the many factors that contribute to women not identifying as or opposing feminism, according to Shailaditya Sen, Assistant Professor of English at Montclair State University. “Most people are not that informed about what feminism actually means (often thinking it means elevating women over men or simply man-hate), its history, how it has changed/developed over time, etc. So when they say they are not feminists, they mean they are not whatever vague and often inaccurate idea about feminism they have.” This would be Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga, proclaiming her love for men ‘instead’. Since there are a number of academic political approaches to feminism – and various philosophies, it is difficult to explore the full depth of these ideas, and just accept what the media ‘insta-feeds’ us.

Academic feminism, is to “disorder established patterns and to denaturalise what has come to be presented as eternal and unchanging,” says Nivedita Menon, in her book ‘Seeing Like A Feminist’. But this poses a threat to the organised social pattern, as media becomes only- and suddenly- preoccupied with feminism when it is untroublesome, and comes in packaging acceptable to the public’s tastes. This ‘upsetting’ form of feminism is subtly put down- once Alex of Modern Family starts questioning why the girls have to play nurses on Halloween, she is quickly made the butt of a joke, making her the uptight one who can’t ‘chill’ on a holiday. “Thanks to pop culture representations of feminism as necessarily militant and vocal (read loud), the image one conjures up when one tells someone they are feminists is one that is confrontational, if not ‘dangerous’.” (Arpita Ghosh)

But Alex is still a white character. A professor of law at Columbia, Kimberle Crenshaw states that “Women as a group experience many different forms of injustice, and the sexism they encounter interacts in complex ways with other systems of oppression. In contemporary terms, this is known as the problem of intersectionality.” Academic feminism seeks to incorporate the struggles of race, class, etc. yet this blatant lack of intersectionality in media’s version of feminism – in which only the thinnest and blondest vie for attention- is another major factor that drives people to distance themselves from a movement that ill fulfils their needs. Add to this the ‘traditional’ notion that women should be relegated to the kitchen- have you heard all the ‘go make me a sandwich‘ jokes yet?- and the gendered notion that pink is for pretty is for girls which most ads, and hence the notion of consumerism and popular culture focuses on, and it is difficult to break out of the grips of capitalist society and start advocating for change, or even thinking about it.

Sign Of A Positive Effect?

However, despite such claims, there are signs that advertisements are consciously making an effort to advocate gender equality, rather than the concept of a man doing a ‘woman’s job’ or vice versa. Ariel, a popular brand of detergent, launched its ‘Share the Load‘ campaign, which raised the question of the task of laundry being equally divided. Perhaps once the notion of gender equality enters the consciousness of society, the concept of feminism won’t be far behind.

Addressing the issue of the backlash against the feminist movement, Shailaditya points out that where there is a successful social movement, there is an inevitable backlash against its gains. He optimistically states that the formation of MRA groups and women (incorrectly) saying that they don’t need feminism is a positive sign, saying that while he thinks feminism is vital, “I’m not worried at how much it is criticized. I think that’s a sign that it is working, is evolving, and is going to keep improving and having more and more of a positive effect on the world.”

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